The Tricky Bits: American Accent 2.0

I'm back, folks! I've been on the set of Berlin Station for the past few weeks, whipping some actors into accent perfection. Which got me thinking: what are the tricks that trip up even seasoned American-accent pros?

Before reading, you might be interested in my original post on Hints to Mastering Any Accent, or my post on The General American Accent ... Taught by a Real, Live, General American. But now let's get to the trickiest of American sounds ...

  1. R: The Slippery Bastard: The American "R" is a notoriously difficult sound, particularly because it appears just so f***ing much. But besides the fact that you have to pronounce the R literally each time it appears, managing the strength and length of that R sound can be difficult for UK actors. The key to sounding fully American is finding the correct "R" balance, which is usually less harsh than UK actors want to make it. 
     
  2. Nasality: Friend or Foe?: For some endearing-slash-annoying reason, Brits tend to automatically place the American accent in the nose, giving an overtly caricature American sound. While we do tend to have more twang than the average Brit, keep the GenAm accent in the back of the mouth to balance the levels of nasality. 
     
  3. Getting the "PRICE" Right: [// sound:] Most literature will say that in theory, the vowel found in the word "price" is the same in both the RP and GenAm accent. In theory, that is correct. However, when we start to look at the placement of the American accent (see my old posts linked above) it is clear that the PRICE sound is slightly different.  Start the American sound in a round, open, back of the mouth, versus the RP PRICE, which starts slightly higher, in the middle of the mouth. This tiny difference can mean dramatic changes in an accent, particularly in a character who uses the word "I" a lot ....
     
  4. Vowel Lengths: The Long & Short of it: Fairly straight forward, but short vowel sounds tend to be held slightly longer in a GenAm accent. This is an easy fix, but can quickly be forgotten when the accent is transitioned into acting. The main short vowels that are held are the vowel sounds found in the words LOT, STRUT, and FOOT.
    "The puppy did not understand the cook book."

    Just to make life extra confusing, we Americans also tend to shorten vowels that are long in RP, particularly the vowel sounds found in FLEECE, CLOTH, and THOUGHT. 
    Keep the fraught bee out the cream!
     
  5. Trick words are not your friends: Lastly, be VERY careful of words that seem straight forward, but are anything but. Even one pronunciation slip up can send you quickly back over to the other side of the Atlantic. Would you know how to pronounce these words with a General American accent? Splinter, Risotto, Herb, Lieutenant, Depot, Aluminum, Privacy, Yoghurt, Pasta, Zebra ...
     

Hints to Mastering Any Accent

Let's be honest: time is not always a luxury in the world of show business. So if you need to faux-master an accent in minutes, this is the guide for you. Instead of getting caught up on every sound, let's cut to the chase so that you can get back to acting.

However, before you rush into learning an accent, it might be worth reading the post 'What's in my Mouth?' to get a handle on the sounds your mouth can make. Then follow my 4 easy steps for fool-proof accents ...

1.     Where is the accent in my mouth? I find that this is the ultimate secret between sounding like a person doing an accent, and actually speaking in the accent. The Accent Kit is the best at exploring this idea, with their 'zones' ranging from 1 at the front of the mouth (an excellent spot for Irish, Welsh, or Standard British accents), 4 at the back of the mouth (giving a more American sound), and 7 in the nose (placing you square up in Manchester). Listen to find the zone of the accent, and then try speaking with your voice aimed in that area only. You'll find the sound changing, even if you aren't changing must else in your accent. Which brings me to ...

2.     Find the hesitation sound. Think of all the times in speech you pause to think, letting out an 'uhm'. Or perhaps you prefer 'erm' or 'uh' or 'eh' or 'ah'. That is your hesitation sound, and it varies widely in accents. This sound can often be found through the 'zone', which we covered in #1. An accent that likes to hesitate on an 'eh' probably sits farther forward in the mouth than an accent preferring 'uh'. You can understand this idea better by reading 'What's in my Mouth?' Vowels 101.

3.     Figure out 2-3 differences from your own accent. You're on a time crunch, so skip the phonetic analysis! Listen to the accent and think ok, what is extremely different sound-wise? Do they pronounce an 'r' when you usually usually do not? Or maybe they change their TH into Fs? Have a think, but don't bog yourself down. Go for the 2-3 most obvious changes and you're good to go.

4.     When all else fails, anchor yourself in 1 sentence or phrase that you feel confident saying in the accent. When you're off track, come back to this phrase to help get your mouth and brain on the road again.

HAPPY ACCENT-ING!

Picture from How to Do Accents by Edda Sharpe & Jane Haydn Rowles

 

 

 

 

 

Warm Up Your Voice: Shower Time

Fitting in a voice warm up every day can seem incredibly time consuming, but it can be as easy as 10 minutes in the shower. Try it each time you shower for a week (if only for the free entertainment), and I promise you won't go back to your old silent showers anytime soon!

1.       Release: You're already in the shower, so luckily you are already in prime release mode. However, take a minute to check in to every part of your body, starting at your toes and working up to the top of your head. Is there any tension you can let go of to allow yourself to become more grounded? 

2.       Breath: Tune into your breathing, making sure you aren't forcing anything to happen. Once you feel your breath is calm, try counting to 10 using only one breath. Then gradually increase the amount by groups of 5, going from 10 to 15 to eventually 30! See how far you can go, and over time you'll find your ability increasing. 

3.       Voice: If you don't already sing in the shower, I can tell you that you are doing something wrong! Give your voice an easy start on a humming, be it a song you already know or something you make up. See if you can experiment with higher or lower notes than you are used to, stopping if anything feels pushed. Transition the traditional hum into making sound on an 'N' or and 'NG,' as in 'sing.'

4.       Resonance: Using a similar counting exercise as before, try counting to 10, imaging the sound coming out only from your chest. Then try counting to 10, imaging the sound coming out only from your mouth, and lastly coming out only from behind your eyes. Finally, try counting to 10 imagining the sound coming from the whole of your body. 

5.       Articulation: Wake up your muscles with a nice bout of gurning, or making strange faces.  Dudley Knight of Knight-Thompson Speechwork decribes gurning as "a wonderful exercise program for your face," and you'll be surprised at the positions you can get yourself into! Once those muscles have been properly stretched, finish it all off with some good old-fashioned tongue twisters. 

Peggy Babcock (10 times fast)
Seth at Sainsbury's sells thick socks. 
You know New York, you need New York, you know you need unique New York

Happy warming up!